Florida at the Southernmost of the United States and Closest to the Caribbean
When Spanish seafarers returned from their voyages of exploration, they reported to the most secret room in Seville. There, 500 years ago, contours of a New World appeared on vellum and linen. In el Padrón Real (the Royal Register), a map of the known world unfurled.
A spit of land north of Cuba first appeared. In time, the map revealed that La Florida was no mere island but an appendage of a great continent. Just where does Florida belong? Florida has since served as BOTH America’s southernmost state AND the northernmost outpost of the Caribbean: a bridge and bateway to North America. Depending upon one’s vantage point – Tallahassee or Miami – Florida is state of minds and contrasts.
It was here, historian Michael Gannon reminds us, that America’s first churches, missions, seminaries, schools, banks, hospitals, cattle ranches, citrus groves and public markets appeared.
The most momentous event in the history of Florida occurred in 1513. It likely involved a Spanish sailor or Franciscan friar wading ashore to encounter a Timucua warrior or Tequesta shaman. The significance of 1513 lies not in the so-called “discovery” – after all, natives had resided on this peninsula for 10,000 years. The significance of 1513 lies in the interaction that followed. The New and Old Worlds came together, in what historians call “the Columbian Exchange.” Any discovery was mutual.
From Europe and Africa came peoples, but also new plants and animals: horses, cows, pigs and chickens, as well as wheat, rice, sugarcane and orange trees. And catastrophic diseases for which the natives had no immunity.
The Americas introduced potatoes and tomatoes, peanuts and peppers, maize, tobacco and chocolate into a new stock pot that revolutionized the modern global diet.
Globalization did not begin in the 1980s or 1990s; rather, the phenomenon appeared in the 16th century. Failed wheat harvest in Castile, a devastating hurricane in Hispaniola and the price of tanned leather in Córdoba affected lives of distant floridanos. In Pensacola and St. Augustine, royal officials ate off Chinese porcelain, clutched Florentine rosaries, drank from Bavarian stoneware mugs, read books printed in Amsterdam and fired Swedish cannons. Spanish soldiers typically ate off Guale Indian pottery prepared by Apalachee or Timucua wives.
Florida became an incubator and cradle for institution building.
It was here, historian Michael Gannon reminds us, that America’s first churches, missions, seminaries, schools, banks, hospitals, cattle ranches, citrus groves and public markets appeared. It was also here that slavery took hold, as well as the emergence of America’s first free black community, Fort Mose.
When Bob Martinez took office as governor 25 years ago, pundits hailed Florida’s first Hispanic governor. Historians quickly noted that Martinez was the 50th such Hispanic governor! Governor Martinez understood the historic responses his predecessors had given to superiors in faraway places: “Obedezco pero no cumplo!” (I obey but do not comply!).
How ironic that Ponce de León’s mythical Fountain of Youth is now reality as millions of Kalamazoo and Kokomo retirees have moved to places like Pembroke Pines and Cape Coral in quest of second chances and youthful restoration, or at least a better February. A beacon of freedom and opportunity, Florida remains a haven for Central and South Americans lured by the American and Florida Dreams.
How fitting that a place first called la Florida in 1513 – a colony, territory and state shaped by Spanish-speaking floridanos – has become a lodestar for Hispanic life at the beginning of a new millennium.
May Florida’s future be as bright and dynamic as its extraordinary past.